Comic strips inked by black cartoonists are about more than just being black. They muse about the angst of college kids, "bromance," even a rapping pitbull that's fallen on hard times. Yet their reach is limited. National syndicates, comics page and newspaper editors rarely allow more than two "black" strips on a funny page at a time.
The situation is so maddening to black cartoonists that ten of them have banded together to stage a "draw-in" of sorts on Feb. 10. Each cartoonist will draw their individual strips with an identical plot.
So, "Candorville"—a strip about culture clashes in the inner city and "Watch Your Head"—a strip about college students—will have different characters, but the same exact storyline.
But will anyone notice? Will anyone care?
"It's probably going to fly over a lot of heads," said "Watch Your Head" creator Cory Thomas, who organized the draw-in. Stephen Bentley, creator of "Herb and Jamaal," said, "Frankly I don't think very much is going to happen the next day, but what I envision is at least the conversation will be there."
In the late 80s familiar strips like "Curtis," created by Ray Billingsely, "Jump Start," by Robb Armstrong and Bentley's "Herb and Jamaal" successfully broke into national syndication. Although they faced the unspoken two-strip maxim then too, there were only a handful of black cartoonists competing on the national stage, so the situation was less obvious.
Then came the boon of "Boondocks," Aaron McGruder's wildy popular strip about two inner-city kids relocated to the suburbs, and with it a new wave of young artists looking to be the next McGruder. The problem now, according to many black cartoonists, is that industry hasn't caught up.
"There's still the same limited number of spots," said Bentley.
Thomas and Bentley will be been joined by Darrin Bell of "Candorville," Jerry Craft of "Mama's Boyz," Charlos Gary of "Café Con Leche," Keith Knight of "The K Chronicles," Stephen Watkins of "Housebroken," and Tim Jackson, an editorial cartoonist with The Chicago Defender and Bill Murray, creator of "Those Browns."
The cartoonists describe Sunday's action as a "reminder" (not a protest or a rebellion or a mutiny) that the race of their characters is not their primary theme. And they are hoping that their laughing public will support them.
The idea for Sunday's action first began with a strip Thomas drew for the college life strip "Watch Your Head," that poked fun of this idea that all black strips were interchangeable. Bell saw the strip and suggested they do something with more impact. They chose Feb. 10th as the day when they published identical story lines because it is closest to pioneering black cartoonist Oliver "Ollie" Harrington's birthday. The two gathered all the names of minority cartoonists they could and sent out emails inviting them to join in.
The issue, unlike the newspapers it involves, is not black and white. Lalo Alcaraz, creator of "La Cucaracha," is also participating, and several white cartoonists have voiced their support as well. Thomas said he wouldn't categorize the limitations put on strips drawn by minorities as "overtly racist," but race is definitely a factor for comics pages editors, the majority of whom are white. "It's just that they choose what they're familiar with," he said.
If a white editor is considering a subscription to "Watch Your Head" explained Thomas, "in the back of his mind he's going to be like, 'OK this is a black strip', not a strip about college kids."
Amy Lago, an editor with the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates both Bell and Thomas' work, said she tries to "look beyond" race when deciding what strips to pick up. Lagos also pitches the syndicate's artists to newspaper clients.
"When I describe a strip, I tend not to mention that the cast is black or biracial or 'diverse,'" Lago wrote in an email. "I prefer to focus on its other attributes, such as, 'young people just entering the workforce, commenting on socio-politics and current events.' "
Anthony Zurcher, an editor with Creators Syndicate, works with Morrie Turner, the first African American to get national syndication in 1968 with his strip "Wee Pals." Zurcher said that fierce competition for space on funny pages is just the nature of the doodling business. "If you're a young cartoonist no matter who are, you're going to be competing," he said.
Bell said black cartoonists do want to compete, but with the entire comics page—not just those artists who happen to share the same skin color. In an email, Bell added that to some Sunday's drawn-in might look like "just another group of whiny dark people playing the race card." But he hoped most would see more than that. Thomas agreed.
"I'm not naïve to think it's going to be this grand sweeping change or anything, but hopefully you get people to maybe kind of reassess the way they look at our strips and look at our work."
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root.